Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Fractal Revelation

Lots of stuff written about how to understand the Bible, especially the Old Testament, is written quite badly. It (the stuff, not the OT) is unclear and uninteresting and often repeats the same obvious points. I think it is because they don't tend to realise that there are a lot of good analogies between the way that the Bible works or the way that preaching works and the way that a lot of the rest of life works. [Dale Ralph Davis seems to be a major exception to this rule because he applies everything so well and keeps it relevant.]

This is an attempt to explain what sometimes gets called "multiple horizons" (a bad title) in a way someone like me would understand easily...

Back when I was a maths geek, I used to like patterns called fractals. Here's a picture of one:

What is special about fractals is that you can zoom in on them as much as you like, and they still look the same. With that fractal, if you picked any of the little circle things and zoomed in on it, you'd get exactly the same pattern as you do with the big picture.

You get the same sort of idea in lots of other fields besides maths - sometimes in a piece of music, one little bit of it shows you something of the pattern for the whole. Or in a book, one scene or action represents the pattern of a much larger section.

Well, it's pretty much the same in the Bible. Often we get little episodes that have the same pattern as much bigger ones. For example, 1 Samuel 2, God has mercy on Hannah, who is sad because she can't have children. Hannah sees that as a pattern of how God has mercy on Israel, which is barren, by giving them a king, which is what Hannah is part of. But we can now see that that itself is part of a much bigger pattern - God having mercy on a spiritually barren world by giving us Jesus. It's the same pattern at lots of different levels, like a fractal.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Thoughts from Psalm 10

This is a rough outline for a sermon I haven't been asked to preach (that being by far the most common type).

When we look at the world, it is hard to ignore the injustice, the suffering, the inhumanity of humans to other humans. And we rightly cry out to God for justice. And the message of this Psalm is that God will hear the cries of the oppressed, the victims. He will hold the Hitlers and the Pol Pots and the perpertrators of genocides and the paedophiles to account. He sees. He hears. He listens. And he will act.

But that is only part of the story. You see, we love to think that there are good people and there are evil people, and that there's something seriously wrong with the evil people, but we're ok. But actually, when you look at it and think about it, that's rubbish. Hitler was democratically elected in Germany. If we had been German in the early 1930s, half of us would probably have voted for Hitler. The Hutus in Rwanda were people, just like us, and yet so many of them were driven by their situation to kill and main their neighbours. As GK Chesterton wrote in his Father Brown stories, we are each capable of pretty much any crime, it just depends on our background and the situation. That is why there is an increasing emphasis on restorative justice, on trying to help people break cycles of criminality and so on. Now, I'm not saying for one minute that we shouldn't condemn people who do wicked things. I think we all know that we have to condemn them. I'm saying that when we do condemn them, we also condemn ourselves.

God is ready, willing and able to act against the criminals of this world. So why hasn't he done it yet? Because when he does, it will mean utterly destroying humanity, which is of this earth.

And yet, instead of that, he comes to earth himself as a man and suffers injustice. He becomes the victim of the oppressor as well as their judge. And because he is the victim, he can then forgive the oppressors. He suffers at our hands the punishment we ourselves deserve, so that we - the wicked - need no longer stand under his judgement if only we will put our trust in him and be born again.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

True and False Needs

All true needs - such as food, drink and companionship - are satiable. Illegitimate wants - pride, envy, greed - are insatiable... Enough is never enough... That is the horror of the giant in John Bunyan and the wicked witch in C.S. Lewis who gave their victims food that causes greater hunger.
Herbert Schlossberg, Idols for Destruction

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Stone the Builders Rejected...

Isn't it interesting that people's number one problem with God as depicted in the Bible (or pretty much anywhere else) is that innocent people suffer?

And isn't it interesting that the way God solves people's real number one problem - the fact that we all reject God and ignore him and deserve to be separated from him - is by the suffering of the one truly innocent man - Jesus? That God takes what people see as the greatest problem of divine existence onto himself, and uses it to solve what he knows is the greatest problem of human existence?

Truly, as it is written:

The stone the builders rejected
has become the capstone;
the LORD has done this,
and it is marvelous in our eyes.
Psalm 118:22-23, NIV

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Why We Need Humble Preachers

Over the years, I have observed that the majority of what Christians believe is not derived from their own patient and careful study of the Scriptures. The majority of Christians believe what they believe because godly and respected teachers told them it was correct.
Jack Deere, Surprised by the Power of the Spirit

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Quotes on charismatic manifestations

I'm currently on holiday and doing some reading on charismatic manifestations - I'm aiming to write an essay on their use and abuse...

Both in Scripture and in church history godly preachers, far from being manipulative, have sought to suppress manifestations, which sometimes persist in spite of the preachers' attempts to stop them.
John White, When the Spirit comes with Power

There is one basic reason why Bible-believing Christians do not believe in the miraculous gifts of the Spirit today. It is simply this: they have not seen them.
Jack Deere, Surprised by the Power of the Spirit

Whitfield - Preaching with the Pope

If the pope himself would lend me his pulipit, I would gladly proclaim the righteousness of Christ therein.
George Whitfield

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Sin and Woundedness

There are two very different ways of describing what is wrong with the human condition that are common among Christians. (Actually there are more, but I want to focus on these two.)

Many, especially doctrinal traditionalists (e.g. traditional Catholics, conservative evangelicals) say the problem is sin - that we do things wrong and the attitude of our hearts is naturally away from God. This finds one of its clearest expressions in the Reformation doctrine of Total Depravity, which says that every aspect of who we are is tainted by sin. It doesn't say we are as wicked as we can possibly be (that's a bad caricature). In this case, our fundamental need is forgiveness / reconciliation. The root of that belief goes back at least to Augustine in the 400s.

Many others, especially those who are less scared of doctrinal innovation (e.g. charismatics) prefer to say that our main problem is fundamentally our woundedness or brokenness - it stems from the ways we have been treated by those around us who in turn are acting as they do because of their woundedness. We are then unable to relate to God as Father properly, for example, because we have had difficulty trusting our own human fathers because they were only human. In this case, our fundamental need is for healing / restoration. This belief seems to date back at least to Rogerian psychology.

Of course, what I have written above is a vast over-simplification. Traditionalists would not deny the importance of healing for abuse and charismatics would not deny the importance of forgiveness for sin. What I am discussing is primary emphases, and even then many whom I have said fall in one camp actually fall in the other.

Both of these descriptions are actually models - they simplify reality to make it easier to talk about. Both of them are popular, I suspect because they are actually Scriptural models - they are ways that the Bible talks about the human condition. Jesus is the one who forgives sins and who binds up the broken-hearted, and who proclaims release for the prisoners. And I think both are in some ways helpful and in some ways unhelpful - if we only use one model in our own thinking, we will get drawn into thought patterns that are not so Biblical.

For example, if we only think about sin, there is the implicit assumption that we are all free agents, whereas actually we are slaves to sin and our sinfulness is bound up with the sinfulness of others. This tends to lead to a lack of love and compassion for sinners. I suspect, for example, this lies behind why charismatics are much better than conservatives at prison ministry. I think the more that we see sin as something corporate rather than just individual, the more this model becomes helpful.

On the other hand, if we only think about the need for healing and restoration, we tend to forget about notions of guilt and wrath, which are very much there in the Bible. Jesus's death becomes less meaningful. Hell becomes merely our normal destiny which some people fail to escape. And the question of how the first people came to become wounded becomes more pertinent. We lose track of precisely what Genesis 3 is doing there. There is the implicit assumption that we are born good, but it is society that has made us sinful, which is straight out of Rousseau, not the Bible.

The same could of course be said about other conceptions of the problem with the human condition - Irenaeus's idea of immaturity, for example, which is especially popular among the Orthodox. It is a Biblical model which is often helpful and sometimes dangerously incomplete on its own.

We need to remember that our sinfulness leads other people into sin too, that we often need healing from the wounds of others' sin as well as forgiveness for our own. But we also need to remember that many of our wounds are self-inflicted and self-worsened, and that we are culpable for many of them and for the consequences of them.

Against this background, Jesus stands alone. He is the one who was sinned against and wounded, but those wounds did not lead him into sin, and yet he kept on loving and showing compassion for those who were wounded and enslaved themselves. He is the one whose perfection shows up something of the depth of our imperfection.

We need to stop thinking like our models are actually exhaustively true.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


Ah, this brings back so many memories. If I was still teaching, I'd make the upper 6th kids watch this...

Saturday, September 06, 2008

John Eldredge - Wild at Heart

This is meant to be a book about men and what a man should look like psychologically. It's kind of like a Christianised version of a cross between half of Men are from Mars... and a self-help book. Except that the 'Christianisation' is very clearly American and very clearly charismatic, with some of the weaknesses of both.

It's worth saying at the outset that I think there may well be qualitative psychological difference between men and women as well as quantitative ones; the question is what they are. Although Eldredge is an experiences counsellor, I have yet to find any men who think that Wild at Heart is a good explanation of what it is to be a man. (I have, however, found quite a few women who think that the 'sequel', Captivating is a good explanation of what it is to be a woman.) And of course, when I judge a book like this, all I have to judge it against is myself and male friends of mine. I suspect that the book may well work better for 'average' men living in the Western US - I suspect that's who Eldredge knows and has counselled.

Of course, there are some good insights. Probably the best one is the idea that men benefit from being given permission to do what they think they ought to do. However, this seems to get slightly confused with Eldredge seeing what people think they ought to do as being what they are called to do by God, which is crazy. He does backtrack on it a little in the final chapter where he clarifies that it's true of people who are sufficiently spiritually mature (for which read that if it's not true of you, you just aren't mature enough yet).

Eldredge sees the three fundamental desires of men as being to fight a battle, to have an adventure, and to rescue a beauty. Of the three, I think it is the idea of having an adventure as a fundamental desire that I am most sceptical about. If he allowed it to become a metaphorical adventure, then that would probably be better, but his language remains pretty heavily literal on that one. Linked in with this is the whole idea of 'wildness'. In one story he recounts, he describes his young son as a 'wild man', and the son asks him if he really means it. Now without tones of voice, I wouldn't know what answer the son would want to hear (but Eldredge assumes it has to be 'yes'). Wildness, which Eldredge very strongly associates with the outdoorsy aspects of US culture, has implications of strength and freedom, but also of lack of civilisation and inability to relate - kind of like Crocodile Dundee, only more so. Would a wild man live in a house, or outside? Would he use cutlery at a nice restaurant? And so on. I think there probably is something under all the rubbish, but I wish he'd made a better job of explaining it.

The area I find most interesting / disturbing is Eldredge's conception of 'the Wound'. According to Eldredge, boys at some stage receive a single put down, usually from their fathers, which makes them think they cannot be real men. What is needed is then for them to discover that and overcome it. All sorts of questions arise:

  • Why is it 'wound' (singular)?
  • Does that imply that they would be better (in some way even sinless?) if their father had not done that? - I think it seems to stem from a Rogerian conception that says that sin is all about us not feeling good enough about ourselves (which doesn't work).
  • Eldredge is right in his (eventual) insistence that we need God's approval not man's, but I don't think his message has anything to hold out to the man who is already well-adjusted.
  • Why is it so programmatic?

All in all, there are some interesting insights here, but a lot of muck as well. If he thought through questions like "Why has the Church said for over 1000 years that men's fundamental problem is their pride?" and "Do these patterns manifest themselves in the same way in every man?", the book could be a lot better.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Sheep and Goats

On a website I visit from time to time, someone asked the perennial question about Matthew 25:31-46 and what it means about salvation. Here's my answer...

Things to note in the passage:

1) Matthew often has very strong and stark divisions of humanity into two groups.

2) This is judgement on the basis of how people treat the disciples, which has consistently been linked in Matthew to how people treat Jesus (e.g. 10:40). "These brothers of mine" is a clear reference back to 12:50, where it is "whoever does the will of God".

3) This is judgement of who is in which category, not how people get into each category - they're already sheep and goats here, the question is how the judge tells which is which. Getting to be a sheep is by grace, through faith. Staying a sheep is by grace, through faith. Distinguishing between sheep and goats is here done by their attitude to other sheep.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

12 Angry Men

For a very low-budget film that flopped when it was released in 1957, it's amazing that it is currently ranked 10th in the IMDB list of greatest films of all time. It's the top black-and-white film on the list, unless you count Schindler's List.

Apart from a very brief scene at the start and the end, the film is entirely set inside the jury room at a murder trial which requires a unanimous verdict and carries a compulsory death penalty, with the 12 men being the jury. In the jury room, there are no names given; and we only find out the occupations of a few of the men.

Obviously based on a play, lots of very clever lines, a good few twists, as each piece of evidence comes more and more under scrutiny.

The acting is excellent, there's good character development, it's very very good for thinking through how and why people think what they think or change their minds. Great film. Top 10 of all time? Maybe. But certainly the sort of film that people doing a job where the truth matters would do well to watch.